I’m glad to see that The God Who Weeps makes some room for Darwin, but I wish it had made more.
Theologically, Darwin is a sticky widget. Here, the fact of biological evolution can be approached in one of three ways: (1) we can shut the door and pretend we’re not home, (2) we can allow it occasional, supervised visits and hope it doesn’t make too big a mess, or (3) we can allow that we are the visitors in the house that it built.
Weeps accommodates something like the second position. And, to the extent that it does, this is a big and welcome step forward in mainstream Mormon discourse.
It’s good for us, as Mormons, to own up to the messy and uncomfortable aspects of our history. And, in this sense, a willingness to own our seer stones, racism, and polygamy may be just as vital to our future as a willingness to own our deep biological past. Recent or distant, locked in vaults or bones, history is history. We can’t afford to play games white-washing Brigham Young or Mitochondrial Eve.
But I’d like to see us take one step more. I’d like to see us explore – carefully and charitably and experimentally – what it might for mean for Mormons to see evolution not just as a local twist in God’s top-down management of a wholly rational real but as indicative of a fundamental truth about the contingent world to which both we and God find ourselves given.
Weeps seems willing to answer the door but (like any wise investigator) it doesn’t want to let the discussion move much beyond the doorstep. The following passage is representative:
Darwin explained how random, incremental change over millions of years, leads to many species developing from one original source, and he proposed mechanisms and processes by which the giraffe acquired his long neck, and our species the miraculous human eye. . . . In sum, he made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist. Why, then, do we need faith in God and things eternal? Perhaps because the development of complex human beings, with self-awareness and lives filled with love and tears and laughter, is one too many a miracle to accept as a purely natural phenomenon. Perhaps because the idea of God is a more reasonable hypothesis than the endless stream of coincidences essential to our origin and existence here on earth. (204/2408)
Darwin gets a nod, here, but really only to juxtapose the weak contingency of evolutionary processes with the reassuring rationality of a strong theism.
While I think this seriously underestimates the explanatory force of these “natural” processes, I also think that Weeps is expressing a solid, acceptable, mainstream theological response to evolution: evolution can be taken seriously as a creative process but only insofar as it is an instrument in the hands of a guiding intelligence. Otherwise, evolution involves one “miracle” too many.
This same sentiment is on display in a later passage that chides Darwin for his inability to account for something as powerful and gratuitous as the beauty of the natural world:
Darwin was sure that even those spectacles of nature that overwhelm us by their beauty, from the peacock’s tail to the fragrance of an English rose, serve not man’s purposes but their own, which is survival and reproducibility. If anything in nature could be found that had been “created for beauty in the eyes of man” rather than the good of its possessor, it would be “absolutely fatal” to his theory. In other words, maple leaves in autumn do not suddenly transform into stained glass pendants, illuminated by a setting sun, in order to satisfy a human longing for beauty. Their scarlet, ochre, and golden colors emerge as chlorophyll production shuts down, in preparation for sacrificing the leaves that are vulnerable to winter cold, and ensuring the survival of the tree. But the tree survives, while our vision is ravished. The peacock’s display attracts a hen, and it nourishes the human eye. The flower’s fragrance entices the pollinator, but it also intoxicates the gardner. In that “while,” in that “and,” in that “but it also,” we find the giftedness of life. (615/2408)
I really like this passage. In fact, it is one of my favorites in the book. It is a pitch perfect description of giftedness or grace. But the passage seems to me to offer a stunning account of exactly how evolution does work, not a rebuttal that is “absolutely fatal” to its credibility.
Evolution works by way of exaptation. The fundamental process is one in which gratuitous features are purposelessly generated and then these features get repurposed by extant systems for some other productive end. The “while” and the “and” and the “but it also” fit perfectly with a Darwinian picture. In fact, they epitomize how natural selection works.
What does this mean? What does it mean if something Weeps sees as key to defending the gospel ends up also being key to defending evolution itself?
Generations of theologians are jealous of our day. On no merit of our own, we’ve inherited the task of probing the theological implications of the planet-sized shift in our self-understanding imposed by the latter-day revelations of biological evolution and deep geological time.
Roll up your sleeves.
May God’s grace shine through us as we bend ourselves to it.
Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).
I’m not sure that exaptation is the proper term for it, but it makes sense to me that if some mutant is more attached to the natural world because they can find beauty in it and desire to hang around in it longer or whatever then they’ll have that much more of a Darwinian advantage.
But Givens’ first passage quoted here is stronger than the second. “One miracle too many,” or The Fine-Tuning argument and the emergence of consciousness or “self-awareness” are pretty significant challenges to which science currently has no answer. To these I would add the extent to which human morality surpasses the primitive moral behaviors we observe among animals in nature. Even scientists admit that they are inexplicable by Darwinian forces alone and would chalk up Oskar Schindler risking his life for members of another tribe to an evolutionary glitch. Most people would find that explanation of one of the highest and most ennobling expressions of humanity to be unsatisfying, to say the least.
As a sidenote, it’s easy to take Darwin out of context because of his rhetorical style. He always says things like “If x, then my theory would be destroyed” but if you keep reading it becomes clear from his arguments that he doesn’t believe his theory is/would be destroyed at all.
Adam, I didn’t reald this section of Weeps as a defense of the gospel, but as a defense of people believing in God, i.e., that it is not unreasonable for a person to believe. Which frankly made it easier to stomach, because I thought it was the weakest part of the book by far, even if the writing is pretty. But that’s all probably beside the point.
You asked what it means, and I take it to mean that right now, at least two reasonable inferences can be drawn from the fact that we appreciate beauty in nature. I might find one more likely than the other, but arguably both are within the realm of reason. Sorry if that’s not very exciting.
“But I’d like to see us take one step more. I’d like to see us explore – carefully and charitably and experimentally – what it might for mean for Mormons to see evolution not just as a local twist in God’s top-down management of a wholly rational real but as indicative of a fundamental truth about the contingent world to which both we and God find ourselves given.”
Amen Adam. Thanks for the thoughts.
Lots to think about here, Adam — thanks.
Adam! I’m so glad you write. Here, “what it might for mean for Mormons to see evolution not just as a local twist in God’s top-down management of a wholly rational real but as indicative of a fundamental truth about the contingent world to which both we and God find ourselves given.” I think this is exactly right. I’ve argued in various places that Mormonism should be more interested in evolution of any other Faith. Its doctrines of materiality and embodiment fit wondrously in a evolutionary framework and provide a better sense of what it means to be an embodied being found in an ecological context. Evolution could do real work in Mormonism. Our flirtatious forays into mainstream evangelical Christianity have been harmful. It’s time we return to our traditions in which we’ve thrown off ex nihilo creation and bring to heart the implications of a God that uses and loves natural law.
I admit to just being confused by this — which is usually my problem. It is heightened by what SteveP says: “It’s time we return to our traditions in which we’ve thrown off ex nihilo creation and bring to heart the implications of a God that uses and loves natural law.”
I am the last guy to promote anything having to do with creation out of nothing. But I am just confused about God’s relation to natural law presumed in the post and high-lighted by SteveP’s statement. Is God subject to natural laws? Does he manipulate them the way a scientist does so that God becomes merely a super-scientist? (Put emphasis on the merely). So god is subject to the entire panoply of randomness such that humans (and human form and likeness) are merely a random possibility among literally innumerable possibilities? God just takes whatever the natural world throws at him — so we write god with a small “g” and Natural Law as the true blind ultimate mindless force? Or is Nature supposed to be another intelligent being that really governs on your view?
I am just confused about what God’s relation to natural law is supposed be? Is he the source of natural as revealed in D&C 88 (yes, that darn revelation that we keep trying to ignore again) or is he subject to what is possible within the constraints of natural laws — including the mindless, purposeless, random natural selection posited by Darwin?
Wow, I have been really enjoying this series and will gift the book to myself this December, but I admit this is the section I have enjoyed the least. While I have not read the section of the book in its entirety, I just have to comment by the paragraphs quoted here. I especially dislike the second, where I sense still a resistance to embrace evolution with what I find to be a weak argument, which I interpret as saying beauty (our current perception of it) cannot result from evolution but it must be a testament of a supreme being making it so.
I like Adam’s interpretation but I fail to make a full reconciliation with what the authors of the book are saying in those lines.
I think the authors try to evoke a more poetic version of the usual attempt to minimize the realities of evolution, but realizing at this point in time that their audience is not going to accept a full rebuttal, rather they have to work around it to still place diety as the sole causation of how things are. But I think I need to read the book to have a more fluid understanding of the tone they are using.
Ditto to James Olsen’s #4 quote. Amen, brother.
I don’t think the following statements are incoherent. And I would like it if LDS Theology made room for them.
1. God is a product of the universe. God lives inside of it.
2. God cannot change the Natural Law that appears to be woven into the fabric of the universe. For example, God couldn’t change the fact that agency is necessary for spiritual growth.
3. Our bodies, including our brains (from which our minds emerge), are products of Darwinian evolution.
4. Our individual spirits are offspring of God, however.
Adam’s “(3) we can allow that we are the visitors in the house that it built.” is quite broad. I believe a theology including the above has much more longevity than #1 or #2. In other words, a belief system that requires a rejection of natural selection (even if it’s the narrow kind that Weeps implies) has a shorter shelf-life among educated folks in the West, I believe.
“Random natural selection” is an oxymoron. Natural selection is nonrandom, as indicated by the term “selection.”
Ah, yes, the evangelicals also used to tell me that I had made God ‘merely’ a man. Nothing weaves gold into straw like a well placed merely. Well done.
Blake asked a reasonable and substantive question, SteveP. Maybe you could address it in a serious way, rather than blowing it off with a snide remark?
@left field, I don’t think the selection refers to the non-randomness of the traits or mutations that occur but to how advantageous and the traits and mutations for the survival and perpetuation of the creature’s genes with the trait or mutation. The benefit is what is selective, not the mutation. Though I could be wrong.
I also think Blake’s question deserve serious consideration.
For me, if evolution is the product of natural selection (eternal reality apart from God) then God couldn’t be guiding or using it as a tool and it still be “natural”. Maybe a better term would be “designed selection”. But then we move away from the intellectual comfort of being in line with the science and are back to the mystery of how God is doing it without being able to detect Him doing it. Which brings us back to a evangelical creationism type response again.
I too think that Blake raises an interesting issue.
Dewey accused philosophers and scientists of replacing the god of the bible with the god of “reality as it really is”, making them (the philosophers and scientists) the priests. I wonder to what degree this might actually be a true depiction of some strands of Mormon thought?
Natural selection is what happens to variability after it appears in a population, and by definition is a decidedly nonrandom process. Its nonrandomness is kind of the whole point; if it were random, it wouldn’t work. Natural selection is the opposite of random. Random processes such as genetic drift also occur under some circumstances, but are far less important in producing adaptations. “Random genetic drift” is entirely sensible, but “random natural selection” is sort of like randomly balancing your checkbook.
Left Field: What gets put into the pool of genes to be selected is random; but so is the resultant selection which is mindless, not driven by teleological purpose. So what I mean by “random” is merely lacking teleological purpose — and natural selection certainly is that. You just cannot avoid this issue by attempting to parse “random” as if it were driven by divine purpose and is still a matter of mindless, purposeless niches, ecosystems and traits selected for survival.
SteveP: Your ad hominem is not merely not an answer but way off the mark. The notion that God directs the creative order by organizing the natural world and that he is the source of (some) rather than the result of (all) natural laws is contrary to the revelations given to Joseph Smith. Of course we can always make scientists the ultimate arbiters of truth rather than revelation and exalt god to be a super-scientist in our own image. Just explain how given anything remotely defensible given current scientific knowledge God acts purposely at all from a distance of millions of light years from earth.
What reason do we have to believe that is a “creator” in any sense other than watching the natural order unfold? How is this view different than simple naturalistic atheism?
SteveP – Let me state this more clearly: The notion that God directs the creative order by organizing the natural world and that he is the source of (some) natural laws is required by revelations given to Joseph Smith. I am unclear what role God plays in organizing the world general and organizing biological systems and living things in particular on your view — and even more so on Adam’s view. I am unclear what the relation between God and natural law is on your and Adam’s views.
Is God simply subject to natural laws tout court and cannot alter, manipulate or change them? Does God have merely whatever knowledge is possible given naturalistic means of gathering information over time? Is God limited by the speed of light in communicating with us and being present to us? Is God limited in his reach to the wing-span of his outstretched arms?
I would expect a theistic advocate of Darwin to view the history of life as a hybrid between natural and artificial selection. Thus, God would be the creator of life in the same way that we evolved domesticated crops and are now able to evolve various kinds of bacteria, etc. This view would be different from naturalistic atheism in a number of ways: revelation, afterlife, god as superscientist, god as super-leviathan (in the Hobbesian sense), etc. I agree that this version of theism might be a bit deflationary, but it still seems adequate.
I’m curious what your interpretation is of all those quotes from Brigham Young, etc. about God acting within the bounds of a natural law which he did not create. Is it a matter of picking and choosing for you, or do you see them in a different light than most scientistic-minded Mormons do?
JeffG: I think I see it the same way that you do with a few added wrinkles. I am an evolutionist, but a theistic evolutionist. God guides processes that to us appear to be random mutations, chance survival and mindless biological adaptation. I have laid out very carefully a complete philosophy of natural law that could be called an agent causal view with divine concurrence of natural laws that is in some ways Aristotelian, certainly consonant with process philosophy and at least informed by modern science. However, my view of God’s relation to natural law is primarily inspired by my reading of Mormon scriptures.
In (very) brief summary: There are inherent properties of eternal natural entities to act and be acted upon. When acted upon, the properties of the patient dictate how the interaction will devolve. The naturalistic propensity to respond to an action in a certain way arises from the properties of the patient; however, these properties cannot be expressed without God’s concurring action. I have given a more complete description in ch. 4 of Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God.
At a certain level of complexity the properties of thought and consciousness arise. With the emergence of these properties, a degree of free will and moral responsibility emerges that is not merely the result of such natural tendencies or propensities, but a much large range of degrees of freedom.
I think we need to stop trying to cozy up to traditional Christian premises and really think about the King Follett Discourse (which we really ought to canonize, by the way).
If the elements are uncreated, and God Himself could not create Himself, and there is not the slightest bit of creation about the Intelligences of humanity, which are eternal and composed of fine pure matter which cannot be seen but by purer eyes, then where did *God’s* body come from? Why can’t God have evolved in accordance with natural laws? Why can’t *our* bodies have evolved?
If “God” is simply from the Proto-Indo-European ghut for “that which is invoked”, then what we’re really arguing about is what attributes the people we Invoke must have have before they are so honored as Deity. According to one strain of thought, if God did not create everything in existence from nothing, then It is not worth being called a “God” at all.
On the other side of the aisle, I got no problem with God simply being a super-scientist subject to natural law, who is “in all things” insofar as he comprehends their inner workings, while not being physically present in them. Do we give worth to our Heavenly Father and Mother because they designed bacteria and quantum foam, or because they love us? God is a volitional being; so are we; we can make changes like Gardeners and act and have purposes and meanings within the context of the overarching ecosystem we find ourselves in the midst of as Gods in embryo.
If we’ve already dismissed the First Cause God as unnecessary, then the entire house of cards that the Fine-Tuning and Intelligent Design crowds lean on falls over. We simply don’t need it. I’m reminded of something Brigham Young said:
“There has never been a time when the creations of worlds commenced. They are from eternity to eternity in their creations and redemption. After they are organized they experience the good and the evil, the light and the dark, the bitter and the sweet as you and I do. There never was a time when there were not worlds in existence as this world is, and they pass through similar changes in abiding their creation preparatory to exaltation. Worlds have always been in progress, and eternally will be.”
Now, maybe he has in mind an infinite-regress of Gods who have always been preparing worlds. But we can just as easily tweak this view (and even incorporate a Big Bang) and say that for as long as there’s been material, planets have been coalescing and evolution has been happening. No one created it. No one “started” it. It just *is*, as are we, as an intrinsic part of reality. There is no coherent definition of “natural” which excludes volition; “supernatural” is a contradiction in terms, since all that can exist is natural, including the natural volitional acts of Intelligences which we have named Gods by common consent due to their great wisdom and love.
As Brigham Young said, “with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant – that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this – they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings.” … “It is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law.”
What I think is so potentially revolutionary about Mormonism is that it takes the best aspects of atheism and humanism and apotheosizes them by welding them into a historical framework of purpose and meaning. We make our own meanings and join our meanings together to create our communal reality. Yes, the universe is “random” if we look through that lens; or we can Create our own Meaning, like loving each other. It’s random and purposeless if *we* see it as pointless; it’s filled with great meaning if *we* choose to see it that way. Like Brigham Young said, we are Revelators to each other, upon natural principles, upon the principle of natural philosophy.
Jeremy (no. 20) — Let’s not canonize it. You are already free to believe whatever you want to believe, without having it canonized. So there is no benefit to canonization, except than that you can start using it as a club to require others to believe also — but then, that wouldn’t be a benefit, would it? To me, it is far better to teach with love and patience, and let the other person learn with love and patience as the dews from heaven distill upon him or her and as the holy ghost bears witness to sincere teachings. Persuasion is far better than force (and canonization suggests force).
Why do we dispute about doctrines? These things out not to be so. I would rather for faith, hope, and charity, and the priesthood restored, to characterize our Mormonism than disputable doctrines of no practical importance.
I don’t know any more about God than anyone else does, I suppose, but I do believe that our ways are not his ways and that he is not limited to our understandings. I am a Latter-day Saint, but I do not believe the God is limited or bound in the way some other Latter-day Saints say he is. I cannot define what he is or is not in a way that will pass academic scrutiny, but then, academic scrutiny is not my standard.
After all our discussion (and it is good to have discussion), the real learning takes place when the holy ghost adds his testimony or when true doctrine distills on our souls — that process is very real, and very enlightening, and very powerful.
I have got to read this book!
I’d also love to see Mormonism engage more deeply with evolution. The fact that old Sunday School manuals turned to evangelical thinkers rather than our own doctrine shows a deep misapprehension of what our theology is saying. But I think Adam is right in that we’re just lifting the lid on our understanding of how deep time and natural selection inform theology.
Blake asks profound questions: “Is God simply subject to natural laws tout court and cannot alter, manipulate or change them? Does God have merely whatever knowledge is possible given naturalistic means of gathering information over time? Is God limited by the speed of light in communicating with us and being present to us? Is God limited in his reach to the wing-span of his outstretched arms?”
I think God is inside the universe, meaning he and she are subject to natural laws, although with a masterful understanding of them. This means (to me) that Mormonism’s God is not omnipotent (helps with the theodicy problem, too). Is God limited by the speed of light? This question has pressed on me and challenged my faith. I see in my very faint understanding of quantum entanglement a possible answer. Also troublesome is how God can know (and inform prophets of) future events when they have not yet evolved? Also a possible answer from physics in the idea that time is not linear.
Being “inside the universe” means what? Some modern cosmological theories posit that our observable universe is a subset of a larger universe, either a limited region within an extended space-time, or a “membrane” separated from one or more other universes by a fourth spacial dimension, or a universe that grew out of a quantum fluctuation in a preexisting space and rapidly inflated into a new bubble universe (one that is still inflating and accelerating), or in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory is one of an increasing branching of all the possible universes that ever could have existed, or that it is in fact a “holographic projection” of information on a surface that exists at the outer boundary of the observable universe, etc. The “universe” we most often think of as the ONE that is created by the Big Bang is not the whole of reality, and may be a vanishiingly small part of the entirety of reality. So which of these universes or multiverses is God limited to inhabiting?
We simply don’t know enough about the scope of reality to be qualified to tell God that he doesn’t kow what he is talking about.
The anthropic constants are a real question. There are a couple dozen constants of nature that simply ARE, that don’t derive as deductions from the laws of physics as we currently understand them. They seem to have values that appear to be totally arbitrary insofar as our physics theories are concerned. Yet the numbers are fine tuned to enable a world like ours, teeming with life, to come into existence. If any of the values were larger or smaller by about 10%, life as we know it could not exist. The “many worlds” theorists suggest that all the different values exist in some reality, and we are necessartily in one of the small minority that are lucky enough to enable the creation of observers (whether intentionally or spontaneously they don’t say). Does God simply take advantage of the universes that meet these criteria? Or is it possible that he has learned how to tweak those values in order to turn a dead universe into a living one? Since we don’t know how they got their current values, we are in a poor position to make assertions about what God can and cannot do.
As to guiding evolution via the manipulation of DNA, doing that is something scientists currently aspire to do, so why should it be a problem for God? If it takes a laboratory to do the job, why should it be beyond God to maintain such a facility? After all, if we believe the Book of Mormon, God can manufacture physical light sources, and information appliances (seer stones and Liahonas). If he can bring the elements together into a planet like the eaerth, change water into wine, create bread and fish out of nothing, why should the micro-scale manipulation of DNA be so difficult for him? Arthur C. Clarke stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I would suggest that God has technology much more advanced than anything we can even conceive of.
One final point. Darwinian evolution offers an hypothesis about the origin or SPECIES, not of life itself. Indeed, in Darwin’s day, there were still a lot of scientists who thought life was being spontaneously generated all the time because they simply lacked the observational instruments to understand how complicated a mechanism a living cell is. Today we know its structure and its function. We know that a cell is self-replicating factory, which contains a computer with a complete set of instructions for reproducing itself and guiding the construction of those copies. This is an achievement that we cannot yet duplicate, either on the microscopic or macroscopic scale (where they are called “Von Neumann Machines” after a scientists who suggested the concept). As we have come to appreciate that DNA is a digital computer program, we also know that WORKING computer programs do not come into existence through random concatenations of 1s and 0s, or As, Gs, Ts, and Cs in the DNA structure. No scientist has hypothesized how non-living chemicals could transition, without guidance, into a single living cell. The assertion that it is possible is more a matter of faith rather than a scientific theory that has been pinned down and tested, a faith based on the a priori rejection of the idea that the first living cell on earth was put together by an entity with purpose and intelligence. Since the first life on earth came into being some 13 billion years after the Big Bang, there was plenty of time for an entity of a different nature than that of earth life to have created the first cells and seeded them into the environment, whether that entity was “God” or “merely” a visitor from another world. Since we Latter-day Saints have explicit testimony from God that he is that entity, why should we argue with him?
I go one step further, that God IS a Darwinist (or Darwin is a God-ist, making Darwin a prophet and a seer). I see nothing in the available universe, or in this world, to say anything differently.
The forces of evolution, random mutation and selection, natural or sexual or any other kind, fill the universe with novelty. This novelty is a wonderful thing, which, without the random walk of life, could not exist. Even God, being constrained by natural laws, cannot design the wonders of life which evolution can bring forth.
Therefore, God, seeing that life is good, and that all life is valuable, lets all life evolve to fill the measure of its creation in the niche where it fits. This evolution is an eternal law, operating on earth as in heaven.
Where our local revelation fits in the grand scheme of things, I do not exactly know, but I know that every statement which God makes has the implicit preamble, “To you I say….” which makes it true within a circumscribed circumstance. The more you learn the less constrained the circumstance. One day I hope to hear a clear statement without the preamble.
I know this is a minority opinion. Please do not heap coals on my head because of that.
As a professional designer, I am curious as to the blend of natural evolution and creative action that God and his family employ. Our world seems to validate both equally in my eyes.
As a designer, I iterate on concepts and ideas. My goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, in order to get lots of good ideas. Thus, I design both a variety of different things and a variety of iterations of any single concept.
In Darwin’s finches I see natural adaption and selection. But I just as easily see God and his family iterating, for form, for function, for beauty, for the process of creation itself is inherently a worthy endeavor, as we have been taught by all Restoration prophets. Creation is gift-giving.
We know that some creations fulfill the measure of their creation better than others, and the scriptures and ordinances imply that some creations fulfill their role better than others and are more broadly implemented in future endeavors.
I’m excited to learn the exact process some day. I’m sure it has more to do with spirituality and worthiness than we might imagine.
I agree with Adam that Mormon thinkers need to more actively engage Darwin.
Any linguistics experts out there? I’ve just finished a book in which Chomsky seems to have concluded that language (what he calls internal “Merge”–the inner computational dimension of language, as opposed to external sensory-motor apparatus used for producing speech and communication i.e. phonology, etc.) cannot be fully explained by natural selection; that this inner language capacity appeared quite suddenly in (probably a single individual of) a population of hominids 50-100,000 years ago just prior to the Great Leap Forward. A mutation (probably of a neural nature) occurred suddenly due to what he calls “third factors,” or architectural/structural constraints of physical reality e.g. constraints on efficient computation in the same way physical space constrains cell division into spheres rather than cubes. It seems that Chomsky is working within Darwin’s general evolutionary framework but is convinced that language is not adequately accounted for by natural selection.
Comet: I am imagining that a countergargument could be made that there is manifest language ability, albeit limited, among apes who can learn sign language and birds who can reproduce human speech in meaningful ways, as well as potentially dolphins.
Chomsky does discuss animal signaling, and speculates that such signaling also describes early hominid language, but differentiates that from the “radical” computational capacity of modern human languages to generate infinite syntactical patterns, which seems to be of an entirely different order than could possibly be explained in the conventional terms of natural selection. He does acknowledge long-term evolutionary adaptation of the external apparatus of communication, but for Chomsky our internal language is not primarily a form of communication; internal computation and external communication/signaling are originally separate, parallel systems that have only co-existed and been integrated a short time and only in a very awkward, uneasy fashion. Anyway, while Chomsky accepts the usual evolutionary framework he sees language as not fully assimilable to the usual natural selection explanations.
The field of language evolution is revving up. In Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, Derek Bickerton proposes that early hominids broke the glass ceiling of animal communication systems (ACS), freeing themselves from the “prison” of here and now, to which all animal ACSs are confined. That is, animal languages are wholly bound to immediate need and “right now” conditions. At some point, human language made the leap to displacement, the ability to refer to something not immediately present. According to Bickerton, early humans did more than just solve problems related to here-and-now concerns. Words emerged, possibly as a result of the necessities of recruiting others to aid in the butchering of fallen megafauna. The emergence of words, he asserts, is what ignited “human-type concepts.” Chomsky holds the vice-versa position, that concepts gave rise to language. Bickerton points to Darwin’s assertion that our getting language was not the result of our having highly developed brains, but our developing higher faculties was “mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language.” Language and human concepts, Bickerton says, coevolved, giving rise to changes in the early human brains–a classic and compelling case of niche construction. These changes have produced what Steven Pinker calls a “language instinct,” i.e. the human brain is now hard-wired to acquire language, in all its creative and productive glory. Language thus went from an ACS, limited to categories, to become a discrete combinatorial system, where a finite number of discrete elements are mixed, matched, and changed to create larger strings like sentences that don’t resemble their parts. Animals, on the other hand, have not gone beyond their usual ACS territories because they haven’t needed to.
There’s a lot more to Bickerton’s ideas than this encapsulation, of course. But I find his describing the language-human relationship as niche construction pretty important language. If you’re interested, I’ve reviewed Adam’s Tongue over on my site, Wilderness Interface Zone. I don’t know how to embed the website address in text, so here it is: http://wilderness.motleyvision.org/2012/patricia-reviews-adams-tongue-by-derek-bickerton-part-one/
God can’t change natural laws? WTF. God created natural laws. Without God the entire universe would be complete chaos.